SEATTLE – A lobbying campaign to save Washington’s charter schools spent nearly $1.9 million to influence the public and state lawmakers, according to documents filed with the state.
The campaign got the results advocates were looking for, as the state now has a new charter school law and lawmakers have allocated about $10 million to run the charter school system for the two-year budget cycle.
But organizers of the campaign believe lobbying by charter school students, their parents and people who live in places where they would like to have a charter school made more of a difference than the TV ads, robocalls and mailers.
“It really was a marriage of the two, but the driver was the parents and the kids,” said Cynara Lilly, spokeswoman for the “Act Now for Washington Students” campaign, which was paid for and organized by the nonprofit Washington State Charter Schools Association.
Some lawmakers wonder if the organization, which reported its lobbying costs with the state under the names WA Charters and WA Charters Action, really needed to spend so much money to convince the Legislature to update the law the Washington Supreme Court found to be unconstitutional in September.
Although Senate Republicans were ready to pass a charter school fix as soon as the session started, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, said lobbying by parents and kids made a difference, especially in the House.
“The people who were showing up every day and talking to legislators were not Olympia lobbyists. They were parents from Seattle and they were kids from Kent and they were teachers from Spokane. That’s the lobbying I think, at the end of the day, was the reason for success,” Fain said.
Rep. Jessyn Farrell, D-Seattle, who voted against the charter school fix, said she made her decision on philosophical and practical grounds, taking into consideration that her constituents voted against the charter initiative in 2012.
“Members of our caucus voted out of a principled position,” Farrell said, speaking of House Democrats who voted for and against the charter bill. She said lawmakers came into the session highly educated on the issue and most were not influenced by a well-run lobbying campaign or even the children and parents calling and stopping by.
She said the bigger factor in the decision was the narrow Democratic majority in the House.
“I think the bill came to the floor in large part to keep caucus peace,” she said. “Each of us has a lot of say when there’s a one-seat majority.”
Farrell said she is more concerned about fixing the way the state pays for the entire public school system and would have voted for a temporary fix for charters if they could have been wrapped into next year’s school budget discussion.
Aaron Wasser, communications director for the Senate Democrats, wasn’t surprised the campaign reported spending nearly $1.9 million to buy television ads, send out mailings, and hire a Los Angeles marketing and public relations consultant.
“It was definitely a full court press,” Wasser said.
But the charter campaign doesn’t come close to the effort made to push through other legislation in previous legislative sessions. Wasser says the people lobbying to privatize Washington’s liquor sales spent about 10 times as much in 2011.
According to forms filed with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, two groups associated with the campaign spent over $500,000 on television ads, more than $100,000 on printing and at least $50,000 on public relations consulting.
The Washington State Charter Schools Association has also set up a political action committee called the Washington Charter Action PAC. They have reported donations totaling just over $250,000 in 2016. The two biggest donations of $125,000 each came from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and his wife, Connie Ballmer.
Lilly said the money will be raised to make contributions to political campaigns, in an ongoing effort to garner support for charter schools in the state.
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